President Obama ended his first speech to the United Nations with a call to respect universal rights and the U.N. itself, saying all nations owed an obligation to the international body.
Eight years later, President Trump took a sledgehammer to that framework, saying Tuesday that it is the United Nations that needs to be reformed and declaring that sovereignty of individual nations must be a guiding principle.
The approaches of the two presidents, analysts and lawmakers said after Mr. Trump’s address, could not be more different. Mr. Trump’s remarks broke with his predecessor on style and substance, and he effectively ended an eight-year policy of apology for American actions — torture, Guantanamo Bay and general arrogance — and offer olive branches to bitter U.S. enemies.
Analysts say the 44th and 45th presidents simply view the world in far different terms. One argues that international institutions and cooperation are the keys to global order, and the other contends that America must come first in his decision-making and that multilateral groups too often cause more problems than they solve.
“There are not two presidents who represent the two poles of that more than Obama and Trump,” said James Carafano, vice president of foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Obama, at the end of the day, is a structuralist who believes that if you can get everybody into these international organizations and multilateral institutions that will promulgate norms of behavior that will condition states and prevent the need for conflict. Trump is exactly the opposite. In both of their U.N. speeches, you see that stark philosophical difference.”
Contrasts can be drawn from Mr. Trump’s speech Tuesday and any of Mr. Obama’s addresses during his eight years in office. But few illustrate the difference as clearly as Mr. Obama’s first, in which he laid out a broad philosophy of breaking with the Bush administration’s interventionist foreign policy and recommitting America to the United Nations and other international groups.
“We have reached a pivotal moment. The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation, one that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations,” Mr. Obama said in the fall of 2009. “So with confidence in our cause and with a commitment to our values, we call on all nations to join us in building the future that our people so richly deserve.”
Mr. Trump on Tuesday deemed that the U.N. is indeed a force in global affairs, but he vehemently rejected the idea that the organization and its priorities outweigh individual nations.
“Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens, to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values. As president of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” he said. “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”
At the U.N., the two men also took far different approaches in how they chose to confront America’s enemies. Mr. Trump had harsh words for North Korea, belittling its leader, Kim Jong-un, by dubbing him “Rocket Man” and vowing to “totally destroy North Korea” if necessary.
He also derided the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, saying he is leaning toward pulling out of the agreement if the Islamic republic doesn’t cease sponsoring terrorism and fomenting discord in the Middle East.
“That deal is an embarrassment to the United States,” Mr. Trump said.
By contrast, Mr. Obama came to the United Nations in 2013, shortly after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rose to power, desperately seeking an agreement with the would-be nuclear power and devoting much of his address to the need for international cooperation and diplomacy.
In addition to the president’s rhetoric, administration officials at the time were frantically trying to arrange a brief sideline meeting between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani, attempting to secure a handshake that would signify the start of a relationship between the two decades-old foes.
The handshake never happened.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama came nowhere close to threatening Iran in the fashion Mr. Trump threatened North Korea.
“I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama said.
Republicans who criticized Mr. Obama’s approach to the United Nations, and America’s role in the world more broadly, praised Mr. Trump’s speech.
“After eight years, it was so refreshing to see an American president speak with moral clarity and conviction about America’s role in the world. America, and Americans, come first,” said Rep. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who is mounting a challenge to Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat.
Democrats took the opposite view and cast Mr. Trump as reckless — the opposite, they would argue, of the measured tone Mr. Obama consistently set.
“President Trump’s speech to the United Nations will be remembered not for rallying the international community around our common challenges, but instead for threatening another nation with annihilation,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat.
Aside from the substantive and clear philosophical differences, analysts said, it was clear that the two men have far different styles — something that became apparent after Mr. Trump’s campaign and his first eight months in office.
In the place of Mr. Obama’s carefully crafted oratory were “tweet-ready” quotes such as the “Rocket Man” line, the threat to destroy North Korea and calling the Iran nuclear deal embarrassing.
“It was a surprise to hear words like that in that hall. But, you know, these were tweet-ready quotes,” said Carla Anne Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “One can say we’ve heard it all before. It was just shocking in that environment.”